Worldview: Looking to revolts of past for clues on Egypt's future

Posted: February 10, 2011

LITTLE BAY, Jamaica - I'm sitting in a small Jamaican fishing village that was once home to Bob Marley - and I'm thinking of Cairo.

I came on a long-planned vacation to a friend's seaside cottage in hopes of escaping from the world, but I'm fixated on the Egyptian revolution. Since there's no TV or Internet here, and it's hard to phone Cairo (as I've been doing nonstop for the last two weeks), I can't follow every new development.

So my thoughts are reverting to past revolutions I've witnessed, to see if they provide any clues to an Egyptian outcome. There was the "people power" revolt in the Philippines in 1986, the Eastern European uprisings of 1989, and the 1998 rebellion in Indonesia.

All have been cited by commentators as relevant to the upheaval in Egypt. But are there really any lessons to be learned?

The Eastern European upheavals, not surprisingly, have little in common with Egypt's. East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia had some historic memory of democracy and could meld into Western Europe.

However, there is one relevant factor. These rebellions were made possible when Soviet party secretary Mikhail Gorbachev told East German communist leaders not to fire on East Berliners who were tearing down the Berlin Wall. That was the beginning of the end for the Warsaw Pact - and the Soviet Union.

Dictators who won't shoot (or whose armies won't shoot) their rebels have a short shelf life. So far, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's army has been unwilling to fire into the crowds.

We get more parallels when we examine the 1986 "thriller in Manila" that ousted the U.S.-backed regime of Ferdinand Marcos. His family's extravagant corruption verged on the bizarre. After his exit, I saw his wife's collection of thousands of pairs of shoes in the presidential palace.

Marcos fell when he lost the backing of his U.S.-trained army; the Reagan administration finally flew him out of the country. In Egypt, too, the U.S.-backed army will decide whether the rebellion succeeds.

However, there were key factors in the Philippines that are absent in Egypt: The army's about-face stemmed partly from the fact that the opposition united behind an iconic leader, Corazon Aquino. And, in a heavily Catholic country, Cardinal Jaime Sin backed the protesters. Islam was not an issue.

The Egyptian opposition is broad but lacks strong leaders. And, while the massive Egyptian protests are not driven by religion, the regime uses the specter of a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood to postpone change.

Which brings us to Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation. An economic crisis along with a student rebellion and massive riots led key generals to abandon Suharto after 32 years. The United States supported him almost to the end.

When I arrived in Jakarta in May 1998, the downtown was still smoldering. Students were protesting against B.J. Habibie, Suharto's vice president and protégé, who had taken power. But since 1998, Indonesia has emerged as a democracy, where Muslim parties hold fewer than 30 percent of parliamentary seats. So, are there Indonesian lessons that Egyptians could learn?

Here's one: Both the Indonesian regime and the opposition made concessions that helped the reform process move forward, gradually. Acting President Habibie - a technocrat, not a general - opened up the political system. Both the opposition and the former Suharto elite were allowed to form new parties.

Habibie served only one year; a key opposition leader, Abdurrahman Wahid, was elected president in 1999. The army's power was reduced, but it remained the bulwark in the background.

In Egypt, where Mubarak still refuses to leave, real power has devolved to his new vice president, Omar Suleiman. So far, this veep has shown little interest in opening the political system, despite a few cosmetic gestures. A former intelligence chief - who is called "Egypt's torturer-in-chief" by human-rights groups - Suleiman seems more comfortable with intimidation than with facilitating reform.

True, Indonesia had advantages absent in Egypt. Its moderate variant of Islam is melded with elements of Hinduism and Buddhism; Muslim extremism exists on the fringes but is an exception. And the Indonesian opposition had leaders who could rally large numbers of people. Future President Wahid, and gutsy Amien Rais, each headed huge Muslim social organizations that helped build new political movements without espousing political Islam.

But what saved Indonesia was the fact that key players, including the army, Habibie, and the opposition, acceded to real, but gradual, change.

In Egypt, the regime is betting it can outlast the demonstrators. It is refusing to provide space for new leaders and secular parties to develop, which is crucial to offset the Muslim Brotherhood. It may be a minority, but it is well-organized.

Down this path lie more violence, and gains for the Islamists. As Washington should be warning, Suleiman can't afford to ignore the Indonesian model, no matter how different the details.

E-mail columnist Trudy Rubin


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